Book review: Dormice, by Pat Morris

Review by Rowan Adams ‘Dormice’ was first published in 2004 as part of the British Natural History Series. This revised edition is now a paperback instead of a hardback, there are no colour photographs inside, and I counted over 20 typos. But I can forgive all that. Not just because the layout is wonderfully clear, and Guy Troughton’s black-and-white illustrations are so informative and beautiful, but above all because the content is utterly superb.

Dormice, by Pat Morris

 

The book is subtitled’A Tale of Two Species’ on the cover, because it is mostly about our native dormouse, the hazel dormouse, but also covers the introduced edible dormouse. Both hazel and edible dormice are European species, but the edible dormouse was foolishly released in Britain by Lord Walter Rothschild at Tring in Hertfordshire in 1902. To be fair, he wasn’t the only one. I’ve got a copy of Edward Step’s’Animal Life of the British Isles‘, published in 1921. There are four pages on’Squirrel’, and then less than half a page on’Grey Squirrel’:

‘Some years ago the caged specimens in the Zoological Gardens, Regent’s Park, had become so numerous that some of them were given their liberty… British naturalists of a not-distant future will probably have to include two species of Squirrels in their lists.’

Pat Morris says,’The edible dormouse is a prime example of the principle,’Act in haste, repent at leisure.’ I didn’t think I’d be interested in the edible dormouse, but that was before I learned from this book that they’re spreading. As well as thousands in the Chilterns, there are outliers as far away as Shropshire, Hampshire and Essex.’It is only a matter of time before this animal becomes commonplace in other parts of England, together with its associated problems.’ These include characteristics which hazel dormice don’t have: a savage bite, living in houses – where they make lots of noise at night, leave droppings, and may cause water leaks or start fires by gnawing pipes or wires – and ring-barking trees, including fruit trees in orchards. Our native hazel dormice, by contrast, as Pat Morris openly admits, are’cute’ and’very attractive’. This book shares with us, the ordinary people who can’t afford to subscribe to scientific journals, the results of the research he and his fellow research workers, especially Paul Bright, have carried out in the last two decades. What is so startling is how little was accurately known about dormouse ecology before this research. Hazel dormice used to be far more common than they are now. They used to live in almost every county in England and Wales, but now they’ve disappeared from about half of their former range, and most of the ones that are left are in the south. Much of this book is about the scientific search to understand the reasons for that decline, and to find out what can be done to conserve dormice, and to help them to increase once again. And because dormice are a classic’flagship species’, understanding their needs helps us to understand the subtle complexities of conserving woods and woodland species, not just dormice. For example, they’ve studied the minimum area of woodland dormice need to sustain a viable population over many years, not just for a while; how long coppicing cycles need to be to create good dormice habitat; how dormice need a wide diversity of tree and shrub species in their habitat; the importance of understorey, scrub, and hedges and other linkages between woods; and the need for conservation not just in bits and pieces but at the level of whole landscapes. What this book also does really well are the insights into how scientists work to find out these things: the creativity, the technical ingenuity, the patience, the sheer hard uncomfortable slog, the subtle number-crunching. Particularly satisfying, like a short detective story, is the description of how they followed up blind alleys, trying to understand the factors behind the distribution map, until they found a plausible explanation. And how did they get the dormouse distribution map in the first place? By imagination, a flair for publicity, and help from thousands of volunteers, in the Great Nut Hunt of 1993. Over 6000 people searched their local woods for the shells of hazel nuts that had been eaten by woodland rodents, and every single gnawed nutshell that was suspected of being the work of dormice was sent to the Chief Nutter, the author of this book, for his inspection. Anybody who is prepared to call himself the Chief Nutter for the sake of science and conservation, somebody who understands the need for publicity and fun and involving’ordinary’ people, has got to be A Good Thing. The tone of the book is like this too: genial, friendly, and wonderfully wry when describing hardships and misfortunes. But I noticed three things which appear to be too much even for a retired academic’s scholarly detachment, and a tone of understandable sharpness creeps in. When one of his research assistants defied instructions and gave hazel dormice distinctive markings by cutting off various combinations of toes – illegal as well as cruel – Pat Morris’s reaction was unequivocal.’I sacked him.’ He’d probably like to do the same with the Highways Agency’s road-widening schemes and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. But I could almost feel the bitterness seeping through the otherwise measured words when it comes to the lack of support for research. The book ends with further reading and sources of information, including Natural England, the Countryside Council for Wales, the Forestry Commission, the Mammal Society, and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species. Maybe we should all check out the PTES website for the latest on the Great Nut Hunt and the Dormouse Monitoring Programme, and join in the fun as citizen scientists, helping to conserve dormice and woods into the future. Dormice Pat Morris with illustrations by Guy Troughton Whittet Books, 2011

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